Focus Wales, Wrexham, Wales, UK, October 6-10, 2021 | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, December 5th, 2021  

Flamingods

Kelly Lee Owens, Red Telephone, The Bug Club, Chroma, Flamingods, Adwaith, Nik Colk Void

Focus Wales, Wrexham, Wales, UK, October 6-10, 2021,

Oct 20, 2021 Web Exclusive
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“It’s mad, what’s happening around here”, says the proprietor of one of Wrexham’s many retro sports clothing emporiums. And he’s not wrong, the Welsh city is buzzing right now. It’s the last place you’d expect a Hollywood takeover of the local football team (or “soccer” team if your “football” is played with your hands), a thriving community of independent businesses and a heaving nightlife, but that’s what it’s got.

This air of excitement, which has put the city on the shortlist for UK City of Culture (a development fund to build on promising cultural activity), is in no small part because of Focus Wales, one of the best showcase festivals in Europe and vital for its none London-centric approach and focus on Welsh acts.

Now in its tenth year, 2021 is a triumphant return that succeeds despite the teething issues with venues and the strange feeling of returning to normal. But, despite the daily required Covid tests, nothing feels like it is in the shadow of a pandemic. Live music is back, and back to what it should be, a communal appreciation of music, gathering together in a space to let loose. Dancing at four in the morning to dub versions of pop hits courtesy of Don Letts in a packed venue feels like the world had never stopped..

We arrived two days into the festival on Friday, in time to witness the angelic tones of Dominie Hooper. The seasoned collaborator and session musician has only just begun stepping out with her own material, and the breadth of her talent is immediately apparent. The traditional folk songs, performed perfectly, tread the line of other genres like dream-pop and more alternative styles of folk, whilst keeping the universal folky appeal. Even if “folk” isn’t your bag, Hooper has much to offer and could happily sit on a bill of indie bands as a pure folk bill.

In a fashion, folk “traditions” also echo through the next act, perched in the corner of The Fat Boar, Nottingham’s Jiminil. Right down to the image, the set is pure late 60s freak folk, harnessing the surreal whimsy of The Incredible String Band and the intricate chimes of John Martyn. While a definite homage to this music of the past, Jiminil and his two associates deliver it with enough charm to make it their own.

Jiminil
Jiminil

A strangely early set from Bahr (although one of his many in different slots) to a nearly empty space, feels like a missed opportunity. There is a sense of fun and mischief in the performance that travels through styles from banging techno and clattering crunk rhythms to RnB soulfulness never losing the tempo needed for the dancefloor. Filling empty space with such excitement is a hard task, but Bahr manages it.

Adwaith just get better and better! Sure, the songs have always been there, but live, the South West Wales trio has developed into something mesmerising, performing with a cool calm but not losing any energy. Their Welsh language singing adds a sense of unfamiliarity for those of us used to hearing our alt-rock in English, as does the post-punk rhythmic pulse, which drives things. Hollie Singer’s vocals are as good live as on record, soaring from jazzy tones to powerful rock growls with ease. The Welsh Music Prize winners from 2019 are a powerful contender for one of the best indie-rock bands in the UK right now.

Because of late running, we are lucky enough to catch some of Campfire Social, another Welsh band of quality. There is no doubt this indie-pop/folk collective is indebted to Broken Social Scene, with the same echoes of 90s emo crafted with rich compositions and bright melodic charm. They don’t miss a note.

But, no matter the quality on show, everything today is a precursor to global-psych adventurers Flamingods who bring the most insane party! Musically one of the most inventive bands on the planet, with the talent to match, by the end of their set there isn’t a person in the gathered crowd not dancing, not sweating and not loving life. Their collision of worldly cultures - London dwellings, Bahrain upbringings, lives in Italy, Dubai, Albania and Saudi Arabia with all the cultural and religious echoes of those places - takes on new life on stage. Nothing all weekend competes with their psych-driven aural patchwork. Dancefloor hits from the past, present and future. Every moment that you think they have reached their peak, a new notch is found. Effortlessly played and with infinite energy, Flamingods is something for everyone (or at least everyone with a soul).

Flamingods
Flamingods

Saturday’s early hours (well early for a music festival) is skitting between Wrexham’s great independent drinking haunts, stores and chatting to industry types with glimpses of bands (many bands) - basically all a “showcase” festival is about. One special establishment is The Parish, a traditional pub given a music fanatic’s makeover hosting acts as big as The Sherlocks in the coming months. Several highlights, occur in its cramped confines throughout the day starting with a surprise highlight in Pontypool post-rock band Fort.

There are lush moments akin to Explosions In The Sky’s most serene moments, crushing post-metal breakdowns and intricate math-rock complexities. Drawn in from the street to be hit with a great band, that feel like they could get better, is exactly what a festival should offer.

In the same venue, The Bug Club are treading between whimsical indie-pop and full-blown blues rock effortlessly. The lull of the trio’s Welsh accents is endearing, especially on the hilariously titled “All The Worst Monsters Live In London”. Sam Willett is a proper shredder when he lets rip with bluesy guitar solos that don’t ways seem obvious for the song but work always, and bassist Tilly Harris is so lost in the music, she doesn’t seem to care if anyone is watching. It is the most fun any performer has all weekend.

The Bug Club
The Bug Club

More in The Parish and more of a quality showing for Welsh music in the form of Red Telephone who tap directly into the “post-punk” era often overlooked in today’s appraisal of the genre. True, the spacious rhythms are there and the “angular” guitar but the synths bring the music closer to that of early Simple Minds or Ultravox than Gang of Four, and that is no bad thing. This direction pegs Roxy Music/Sparks playfulness to their neo-psych and Suede-aping past selves, turning it into something thoroughly intriguing. They have the skills to match the ambition.

But the Welsh revelation of the day is three-piece Chroma. The scuzzy, fuzzy rock played with bass and drums is kinetic but it is singer Katie Hall who commands the stage and audience completely. A natural on stage, her voice is powerful and soulful but aching with a vulnerability that makes it completely believable. This is a performance but not an act. The recorded output, while excellent cannot prepare you for the power of Chroma live. The songs themselves place feminism on a personal level and connect deeply - you can tell from the audience response. In a just world, Chroma should be one of the biggest new rock bands around.

Chroma
Chroma

Sitting on top of the pile of pure Welsh brilliance is Kelly Lee Owens who delivers a transcendental experience, something fuelling pure euphoria. Every aspect from the giant trippy visuals, to the turning her back after each track and the intricately choreographed moves to perform each aspect of her tunes, is crafted to perfection. From dream-pop wonders elevated by Owens’ soaring vocals to pure acid techno breakdowns, she proves herself to be one of the most interesting and talented artists we have. Kelly Lee Owens show was like a religious sermon and everyone left converted.

After that, there is a gaping hole, in which Nik Colk Void’s experimental glitches fall. A few moments hit the groove of her previous act Factory Floor, with much touching on the avant garde end of the electronic spectrum. It is incredibly played and crafted but maybe the wrong time to be on, as the fatigue of the day sets in for many milling around.

It falls to a closing set from legend Don Letts who is still spinning his sections from the spectrum of Jamaican sounds well past his advertised end time to a packed out venue celebrating a joyous occasion.

And there it is, a decade of Focus Wales wraps up with the best coming from the Welsh bands on the bill and the promise of Wrexham hanging in the air (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). New music in a great place and Focus Wales is an event that is tapped right into its core. It’s back in May.

Focus Wales official website




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